As anyone who lives or works in an older city can attest, gentrification can be something of a mixed blessing. There’s no denying the benefits that accompany the revitalization of a neighborhood gone to seed, so to speak. The convenience and glow of new infrastructure, the excitement of modern businesses opening their doors, and the influx of new residents with cash to burn all contribute to the restarting of an economic engine, making a once-avoided neighborhood a destination for locals and tourists alike. Then again, if you already call that neighborhood home, a reboot might mean heartache. Gentrification inevitably displaces longtime residents and small businesses, either because they’re physically in the way of new construction or can’t keep up with rising rents. The process often disrupts traditionally ethnic enclaves and alters the character of a given neighborhood. It’s a difficult, painful balance to strike – how do you clean up a region of a city without scrubbing out its culture?
Montreal is no stranger to this issue. Over the past 10 years or so, the downtown area now known as the Quartier des Spectacles has emerged as the epicenter of the city’s annual summer festivals and year-round performances.
Stretching nearly one square kilometer, this central location has been transformed by public real estate and construction projects into a polished, pedestrian-friendly hub that’s inviting, spacious, and comfortable. As an annual attendee of the Montreal Jazz Festival, I can’t exactly criticize the results.
But the ongoing initiative has encountered its share of resistance – particularly from the remnants of Montreal’s red light district. Once populated by a slew of shabby bars, strip clubs, and prostitutes, the portion of Boulevard Saint-Laurent that overlaps with the Quartier des Spectacles has long been home to an element that isn’t exactly consistent with the sparkling vision promoted by city planners.
But that’s just the problem – you can’t expect corporate real estate executives to distinguish between a decrepit tavern and a humble but cherished local landmark. Like the venerable Montreal Pool Room. Established in 1912, this divey restaurant hasn’t actually had pool tables for years but is beloved for its steamed hot dogs and poutine. The business butted heads with developers before agreeing to move across the street in 2010.
Café Cleopatra, meanwhile, remains in the same spot it’s stood since 1976, despite many spirited attempts to close it down. At first glance, this dated, seedy looking strip club might not seem worthy of preservation.
But it isn’t your typical den of iniquity – while Cleopatra’s ground-level floor is occupied by a traditional strip club, the upstairs is home to drag queen and transsexual shows. None of this is my particular cup of tea and may not be yours either, but a business that welcomes such a disparity of clienteles is unheard of. Western culture is only at the dawn of widespread transgender acceptance, and yet this club has coexisted above a bastion of male heterosexuality for decades. Whether that should bestow upon Cafe Cleopatra any special privilege as the neighborhood evolves is not for me to say. But it’s a reminder that a building is more than its façade, and that an institution deemed out of place by an ambitious urban planner might be a sanctuary for people who don’t feel welcome elsewhere.
Situated across the street from Cleo’s and adjacent to the Montreal Pool Room, Taverne Midway has a long, colorful history of its own. It’s resided on Boulevard Saint-Laurent since 1927, though its sharp, modern exterior belies its age. The bar presumably had its heyday, but for much of its long existence, Midway blended right in with the other nondescript, faded storefronts nearby. It was a dive you might walk right past, if you happened to be walking in that area at all.
“It wasn’t exactly a cocktail bar,” one of the bartenders tells me, diplomatically. Well, it is now.
Under new ownership, last year Midway reopened its doors after the completion of a dramatic makeover. It’s a new bar with an old name – and in many respects, an old soul.
Despite the facelift, Midway’s décor remains simple and understated, with wooden fixtures and exposed brick giving the space a timeless appearance. A long bar is surrounded by about 20 wooden stools, and the shelving behind is made to look like brass or copper pipes.
Cage lighting emanates from pipes affixed to the walls, casting a dim glow throughout the spacious room. Spread along the wooden surface of the bar are fresh ingredients, various bitters, vintage bar tools, and large jars of pickles and pickled eggs that recall the bar snacks of a bygone era.
Best of all, Midway’s cocktail program is devoted to the sort of drinks the bar may have served back when it first opened its doors nearly nine decades ago. The menu, organized by type of spirit, is heavy on the classics – Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Americanos, you name it – and each is made with the care and precision that define contemporary mixology.
As timeless cocktails go, it’s tough to top the Manhattan. Midway’s version plays it by the book but still manages to surprise. It’s made with Canadian Club 12-year whisky, which I didn’t even know existed. I’ve had Canadian Club’s flagship offering plenty of times, but this version, aged six additional years, is rich, complex, and well suited to a Manhattan. For a garnish, the bartender recommended that I opt for an orange peel instead of a cherry, and the citrusy zest brought out some of the spicy and fruity notes in the whisky.
While a Manhattan is pleasant under any conditions, I chose the rest of my drinks with an eye toward cooling off on a hot July night in Montreal. Midway’s Mai Tai is faithful to the Trader Vic original, with Bacardi Superior rum, Brugal Añejo, orgeat syrup, lime juice, and hand-crushed ice. Refreshing but not too sweet, a sprig of mint adds a fresh aroma to every sip.
The Paloma is something I don’t see often enough on drink menus, and I was excited to revisit this sour, fruity classic. Made with tequila, Campari, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and agave syrup, and garnished with an impressive grapefruit wedge, it’s crisp and invigorating.
Midway’s Caipirina is made with Leblon cachaça, simple syrup, and lime juice, and poured over hand-crushed ice. Cachaça is earthier than its more popular cousin, rum, and this traditional Brazilian cocktail is ideal for a hot summer night.
My final choice was a drink I’ve never seen on a menu at an actual cocktail bar. The Long Island Iced Tea is one of those drinks that has something of a dark aura surrounding it. With its reputation of essentially being a hyperspace jump to a state of astonishing drunkenness, the potent libation tends to appeal mostly to college-age drinkers who value quantity over quality when it comes to their booze. Of the Long Islands I’ve personally consumed, none have ever been made the same way, and most of them have tasted like crap (not to mention their lack of any resemblance, in color or in flavor, to iced tea, unless Long Islanders have a very different conception of the summertime beverage). Honestly, I figured there was no common recipe for the drink and that it involved little more than dumping a bunch of low-quality spirits into a glass and topping it with a splash of Coke.
Not so, Midway’s bartender told me, as he assured me it should be counted among the classics. Well…I was on vacation. So I watched as a parade of liquors – vodka, rum, gin, and Cointreau – got poured into a tall glass, along with orange juice, simple syrup, and of course that critical splash of Coke. And you know, it was pretty good!
Boozy but respectable, I think I even detected something resembling the flavor of tea. Whether it was the use of quality spirits, or an artful, professional approach to making the cocktail, or some combination of those factors, Midway’s Long Island Iced Tea is bright, smooth, and surprisingly drinkable.
Now granted, I don’t remember anything that happened after I finished it…
Taverne Midway links this Montreal neighborhood’s colorful past with its inevitably gentrified future. More than that, it presents an example of how a sense of tradition might be preserved while the city around it evolves. As far as I can tell, this bar has been at the same address since before the Great Depression and has always been called Midway. With a contemporary cocktail program based on the classics, the bar’s future looks bright. Patrons of the earlier, scruffier iteration may not be thrilled about the new look and the trendy $12 cocktails, but I think it’s preferable to a condo or an office building.
And on that note, here’s hoping Montreal finds a way to keep improving its beautiful Quartier des Spectacles without totally eradicating its character. Maybe not every business in the area is on point with the larger message, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a place in the city’s growth. And a little grit doesn’t spoil the grandeur.
Address: 1219 Boulevard St-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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